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New Plans For Barren Lands

Brownfield redevelopment report describes job-producing program

January 3, 2006 | By Keith Schneider
and Mac McClelland
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


Work began on Traverse City’s first brownfield redevelopment project, River’s Edge, in 1997

In the early 1980s the federal government and the State of Michigan each enacted new laws that inadvertently triggered another, less welcome one—the law of unintended consequences.

The two statutes—the federal government’s new Superfund law and the Michigan Environmental Response Act, were meant to deal with “brownfield” sites that were abandoned due to the toxic wastes manufacturing companies had left behind. Both statutes compelled manufacturers to greatly improve waste disposal practices and clean up toxic messes, which contaminated an estimated 500,000 sites nationally, and 10,000 within Michigan, according to state and federal studies.

But administrators soon discovered that the new laws were not working well; their unrealistic expectations about the cost, public health risks, and legal responsibilities of cleaning up such sites were harming many communities they were supposed to help. The laws’ liability provisions put cleanup costs squarely on the current owners of contaminated property, regardless of whether they caused the pollution, while the exposure standards required landowners to essentially eliminate any trace of chemical pollutants.

With cleanup costing $20 million an acre and more, nobody wanted anything to do with buying, decontaminating, and redeveloping contaminated sites. So sites just sat there, gathering litter, polluting groundwater, driving down property values, and encouraging blight. Soon a loud, persistent, nationwide call went out for changing the law. It was most urgent in Michigan, whose post-industrial, economically troubled big cities and small towns were desperate for revitalization, but hamstrung by the cleanup laws.

State leaders listened. From 1994 to 2000, then-Republican Governor John M. Engler, state legislative leaders of both parties, and Michigan’s citizens approved trend-setting laws and a $675 million bond referendum that made cleaning up contaminated sites faster, easier, and less expensive. The result: Michigan’s brownfield redevelopment program is responsible for 14,000 new jobs since the mid-1990s and $3.8 billion in private investment since 2000, according to the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. It is the most efficient and successful state urban redevelopment program of the past generation.

All across Michigan, new homes and offices stand on what were once empty lots. In fact, two of Michigan’s great cities, Grand Rapids and Traverse City, owe much of their revival in this century to state help in cleaning up the industrial detritus left from the last.

Institute Spreads the Word
Inspired by those successes, the Michigan Land Use Institute published New Plans For Barren Lands: A brownfield redevelopment guide for Michigan’s northern coastal communities. The 16-page report summarizes the many achievements that modernized state toxic cleanup laws have facilitated, explains why investing millions of taxpayer dollars to transform ugly parcels into centers of commerce is an excellent redevelopment strategy, and offers a step-by-step guide for communities that are interested in using the program to boost their own local economy.

In an era of rising joblessness, fading old-line industries, and local and state budget deficits, encouraging healthy economic growth is extraordinarily challenging. The Institute report asserts that Michigan must look hard at its small and large urban centers, which generated real wealth through much of the 20th century and can do so again.

The saga of how the state’s brownfields redevelopment program has efficiently turned hundreds of abandoned parcels into generators of work, housing, and economic well-being is one of a well-reasoned government program that works. There are many examples:

  • A $4.5 million state cleanup grant that leveraged more than $2 million in local matching dollars is enabling Muskegon to turn a moribund downtown shopping center into a new neighborhood of shops, homes, and restaurants.
  • Strategic investments of more than $27 million in state brownfield grants, loans, and tax credits utterly transformed Traverse City’s downtown.
  • Ludington, Elberta, Frankfort, and East Jordan turned vacant or poorly utilized property into places people flock to. Frankfort even built a handsome city hall.

The redevelopment market is astonishingly strong in Michigan, as energy prices soar and demographic trends encourage retirees, professionals, and families with children to seek the convenience and quality of life that living near workplaces in cities and towns provides.

Still, the most important goal of New Plans is not to remake the case for a program that has proven its value — a case so strong that it should prompt the Legislature and Governor Granholm to renew the state’s brownfields redevelopment budget. Just $20.4 million in state brownfield redevelopment grants remain, and the program’s management and oversight staff could dissolve.

A How-to Guide
Rather, New Plans can help state lawmakers, government officials, local leaders, and developers in northern Michigan coastal communities understand and use the state’s brownfield redevelopment program.

New Plans explains how to access the many economic incentives provided by the state’s brownfield program. The report also describes how several northern Michigan communities brought public and private resources together to spur investment in their downtowns. It emphasizes that success stemmed from:

  • Planning — knowing what the community wanted and establishing a master plan and zoning that encourages downtown redevelopment.
  • Partnerships — bringing together developers, the state, and local officials to thoughtfully packaged projects.
  • Perseverance — devoting plenty of time to seeking the best solutions and financial incentives for downtown redevelopment.

In short, New Plans is a convenient guide that helps the region’s lawmakers, local officials, and developers use Michigan’s incentive programs effectively to redevelop brownfields in northern coastal communities. New Plans can help build a new era of downtown excitement in northern Michigan and throughout the state—a future distinguished by cleaner, greener, more inviting and vital places to make a home and a life.

Mac McClelland is the manager of brownfield redevelopment at Otwell Mawby, P.C., in Traverse City. Reach him at mac@otwellmawby.com. Keith Schneider is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s deputy director. Reach him at keith@mlui.org. To read or download New Plans for Barren Lands in its entirety, click here.

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